The purpose of this section is not by any means to offer a comprehensive historical perspective of the way the Orthodox Church has used the model of "interpretation of Scripture in the context of tradition" discussed in the previous sections. The length of this paper does not allow for such an approach. Rather, we have chosen three important Orthodox thinkers from three different periods and we shall treat them as case studies for the way this model has been applied in different historical circumstances.


                        A. The Patristic period - St. Athanasius


The Orthodox Church has its roots in the theology of the Church Fathers and it is there that we have to look for the patterns followed by later authors. And so we turn to St. Athanasius as an example of Scripture interpretation in the context of tradition.


            1. St. Athanasius and the Arian debate

            According to Fr. Florovsky exegesis was the most important, if not the only theological method in the first centuries of the Christian Church.[1] This was exactly the ground on which St. Athanasius (c. 300-373) had to meet Arianism.

            The Arians had gathered an impressive amount of Scriptural proof-texts in favor of their position that the Son of God was no more than a creature and tried to restrict the discussion to the Biblical ground. Their method consisted in selecting their favorite passages and using them without much concern for the total context of Revelation. But, as Florovsky points out, `Scripture had its own pattern, or design, its internal structure and harmony. The Heretics ignore this pattern, or rather substitute their own instead. In other words, they re-arrange the Scriptural evidence on a pattern which is quite alien to the Scripture itself'.[2]


            2. St. Athanasius' response

            In his reply, St. Athanasius invoked the regula fidei. Here is his basic statement: `Let us, who possess the scope of faith, restore the correct meaning of what they had wrongly interpreted'.[3] By "the scope of faith" St. Athanasius did not mean a vague "general drift" of the Scriptures, but `precisely their credal core, which is condensed in the "rule of faith" as it had been maintained in the Church and "transmitted from fathers to fathers", while the Arians had "no fathers" for their opinions'.[4] Fr. Florovsky believes that skopos in the language of St. Athanasius is a close equivalent to what St. Irenaeus used to denote by hypothesis - `the underlying "idea", the true design, the intended meaning'.[5]

            The way this principle was applied was that `time and time again, in his scrutiny of the Arian arguments, St. Athanasius would summarize the basic tenets of the Christian faith, before going into the actual re-examination of the alleged proof-texts, in order to restore texts into their proper perspective'.[6]


            3. Critical conclusions

            The method used by St. Athanasius, writes H.E.W. Turner, `has been taken as a virtual abandonment of the appeal to Scripture and its replacement by an argument from Tradition.'[7] The author sees a danger in this approach, which in less careful hands could lead to imposing a straight-jacket on the Scripture, much like the Arians did.

            Fr. Florovsky believes that Turner exaggerates the danger, which is typical for the difference between Orthodox and the Protestant perspective. The "rule of faith" used by St. Athanasius was not an external authority imposed on Scripture, but only the condensation of the same Apostolic preaching we find in written form in the New Testament. So, basically there is no real danger in this approach; St. Athanasius is on solid ground.

            To what extent is this a correct conclusion? Manlio Simonetti, in his recent work on Patristic exegesis, states that St. Athanasius holds only a marginal interest for his study, `because he himself took little interest in exegesis'.[8] If this is true, then it has, we believe, a very reasonable explanation. In the concrete historical circumstances that he faced, St. Athanasius needed to resort to a different approach. He was a polemist. His major objective was the defence of orthodox faith against the heretics. Following his predecessors, Athanasius did not engage in Biblical debates with opponents, but through an appeal to Tradition he tried to re-establish the integrity of the Christian message, threatened by the faulty way the Arians were handling Scripture. His concern was not for the "letter", but for the "spirit" of Scripture.

            When the core message of Scripture was restored, it could offer the exegete a sure ground on which to exercise his activity. The integrated model of Biblical interpretation in the context of tradition in which he strongly believed offered Athanasius the possibility to respond to the challenge he faced, emphasizing the "rule of faith" at the expense of exegesis, without being less Scriptural, for that matter.

            Of course, in the hands of people who did not have such a high view of the sufficiency of Scripture this could lead to a neglect of the Bible and to an over-emphasis on tradition, a condition which is not uncommon in Orthodox circles. From an Orthodox perspective, if someone had an apprehension of the regula fidei, without a deep knowledge of Scripture, he could still be an orthodox believer. On the basis of that doctrinal core he would be able to build a correct understanding of the Bible and be protected from arbitrary interpretations and from heresy.

            This approach stands in sharp contrast to the Protestant position, according to which, if we are faced with the alternative of the apprehension of the "rule of faith" over a knowledge of Scripture, it is preferable to chose Scripture, since from it, provided that we use the correct exegesis, we can discover the core Christian message. It is hard to avoid the impression that such a choice is based on a rationalistic and over optimistic hermeneutic, more in line with Renaissance and Enlightenment thinking, than with the Biblical mind-set.

            Do we have to choose between these two hermeneutics? Not necessarily. In fact, the strength of one is the weakness of the other. So, a better solution would be a combination of both, in which equal attention is given to Scripture and Tradition, with a freedom to emphasize one or the other, according to the concrete circumstances which confront the Church.


                        B. The Byzantine period - St. Gregory Palamas


Georges Florovsky believes that `Byzantine theology was an organic continuation of the Patristic Age'.[9] On this point there is not total agreement in the theological world.[10] The sure thing is that Byzantine writers, including St. Gregory Palamas, claimed to follow in their theology the Church Fathers and especially the Cappadocians.

            The study of Palamas as a representative personality for the Byzantine theology is justified by his overarching influence on modern Orthodox theology. LaCugna writes about him: `Gregory is as central a figure in the East as Thomas Aquinas is in the West'.[11]


            1. St. Gregory - the hesychast theologian

            St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) was not a speculative theologian. He was a monk and a bishop. As a theologian he was concerned both to understand and explain the spiritual experience of the Church.[12] Palamas was the most vigorous defender of hesychasm,[13] a form of spiritual developed by the monks on Mt. Athos, against the accusations of Barlaam, an Italian, infiltrated by the Catholics among the Orthodox in Greece.[14]

            In fact in the dispute between Palamas and Barlaam we have a confrontation between the mystical tradition of the East and the scholasticism of the West. The irony is that although the Palamite theology has received official recognition from the Orthodox Church at the Councils in 1347 and 1351, it was soon forgotten and Orthodox theology stood for almost five centuries under a strong scholastic influence.

            St. Gregory starts his theological investigation with the question: What is the essence of the Christian experience? The answer he gives to this question, which is theosis, is not new. The Church Fathers - St. Athanasius, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Maximus, etc. - have used it extensively before. The essence of theosis is probably best expressed in the famous maxim of St Athanasius: `He became man in order to divinize us in Himself' (Ad Adelphium, 4).[15] This does not imply an ontological change[16] - man cannot become God; it means a personal encounter, an intimate sharing of the divine life by the man created in His image, in such a way that he will start bearing more and more His likeness.

            The real question that confronted the theologian was how could this mystical union be compatible with the divine transcendence? The answer of St. Gregory was to make an ontological distinction between God's ousia - the unknowable, imparticipable essence of God, and His energeiai - the uncreated divine energies[17] through God can be known and participated into. Again, doing this, he claimed to follow the Church Fathers.

            St. Gregory distinguishes three aspects of God's being and associates to them three types of union with God. The first aspect is God's essence, to which corresponds union according to essence. This takes place only between the divine persons, since the created order cannot be united with the divine essence. the second aspect is the divine hypostases, to which corresponds hypostatic union, possible only in the person of the incarnated Son of God, between His two natures. Finally, there are the divine energies, to which corresponds union according to energy, the only type of union accessible to a creature, in order for the union to be real and for God's transcendence to remain absolute.

            St. Gregory avoids the risk of talking about an impersonal type of union between man and the divine energies stating that the energies are enhypostatic, that is, they are personal, in other words they cannot exist apart from the divine hypostases.


            2. St. Gregory and the Patristic tradition

            St. Gregory was suspected of subversive innovations by his enemies and this is still the way he is perceived in general in the West.[18] However, he thinks about himself as being deeply rooted in the tradition of the Fathers.

            LaCugna talks about two extremes in this debate. At one extreme she sees those like Endre von Ivanka, who hold that `a real distinction between essence and energies contradicts the thought of the Greek Fathers. In their opinion the Cappadocians were making only an epistemological distinction, and not a real one. At the other extreme she sees the neo-Palamites, who `celebrate the patristic pedigree of Gregory's thought and at times speak as if no time, no shift in language or philosophy, occurred between fourth and fourteenth centuries.' LaCugna believes that whilst the texts quoted by Gregory from the Cappadocians do not suggest an ontological distinction, but `does not exclude the possibility that such a reading could be a legitimate and genuine development of Cappadocian thought...'[19]


            3. Critical conclusions

            It is not our objective here to offer a critique of the theology of St. Gregory. What we are concerned about is the extent to which Palamas has used Scripture and tradition in order to respond to the challenges of his day.

            What we have here is a confrontation between the East and the West, between the mystical tradition of the Orthodox Church, in light of which Palamas tries to make sense of the doctrine of deification and the scholasticism of the West, striving for philosophical coherency, understood in the terms of Aristotelianism. The whole debate takes place on a philosophical and theological plane, with very little reference to Scripture, and when this happens, as in the discussion about the light of Mt. Tabor, the Biblical text is more a pretext for speculation, than an object of exegesis.


            We have seen in our presentation about the Patristic period that in the context of the Arian debate, for reasons peculiar to the nature of the debate, St. Athanasius attributed more attention to the theological argumentation at the detriment of exegesis. With St. Gregory we see the Athanasian approach taken for granted, in spite of the fact that the historical conditions had changed. The implicit result was a domination of the philosophical approach and a neglect of exegesis, a tendency that would continue in the Orthodox Church to the present days.


                        C. The contemporary period - Fr. Dumitru Staniloae


The Orthodox Church of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries has been confronted with a strange situation. Although in her worship she follows faithfully the patterns established by the Church Fathers, in theology she has been dominated from the seventeen century by a form of scholasticism of Catholic origin. To this situation is addressed the call to renewal issued by Fr. Georges Florovsky:


`It is not enough to keep a "Byzantine liturgy", as we do... One has to go to the very roots of this traditional "piety", and to recover the "Patristic mind". Otherwise we may be in the danger of being inwardly split - as many in out midst actually are - between the "traditional" forms of "piety" and a very untraditional habit of traditional thinking. It is a real danger. As "worshippers" we are still in "the tradition of the Fathers". Should we not stand, conscientiously and avowedly, in the same tradition also as "theologians", as witnesses and teachers of Orthodoxy? Can we retain our integrity in any other way?[20]


            This effort of re-establishing the Patristic and Byzantine character of Orthodox theology, together with its engagement in the general theological dialogue and a constant striving towards becoming relevant in the context it addresses, represent the distinctive marks of contemporary Orthodoxy. The Romanian theologian Dumitru Staniloae, who is considered by Olivier Clement[21] the most important Orthodox theologian of the twentieth century, is probably the best example for the purpose of our discussion.


            1. Staniloae and St. Gregory Palamas

            At the beginning of his academic career, in 1930, Fr. Staniloae (1903-1993) had translated into Romanian The Dogmatics of Christos Androutsos. He was then under the influence of the scholastic tendency that dominated at the time the Romanian Orthodox theology. Eight years later he translated and commented the main works of St. Gregory Palamas and this brought a dramatic change in his approach of theology and spiritual life. He became a hesychast and through his theological work effected a major change of direction in Romanian theology,[22] from a scholastic towards a more apophatic approach, without a neglect of the cataphatic aspect.[23]


            2. The perichoretic model of Fr. Staniloae

            In our presentation here we are not concerned with the whole dogmatic system developed by Fr. Staniloae, but only with his understanding of Scripture and tradition. Staniloae borrows from the doctrine of Trinity the concept of perichoresis and uses it in order to create a dynamic model of the relationship between Scripture, tradition and Church. In his understanding,


The Church is the environment in which the content of Scripture or Revelation is imprinted, through Tradition. Scripture or Revelation needs Tradition as a means of activating its content, and Church as a practicing subject of Tradition and as an environment in which the content of Scripture or Revelation is imprinted. But the Church needs Scripture too, in order to be refreshed through it, to grow in the knowledge and the living in Christ and to enrich its application to her life, through Tradition. Church, Scripture and Tradition are indissolubly united. [24]


            The interpenetrated action of Church, tradition and Scripture is empowered and works, according to Staniloae, by the Holy Spirit, who constituted the Church, the Body of Christ, at Pentecost, inspired Scripture, the Word of God, and continues to communicate Christ to us through tradition.


            3. Critical conclusions

            The value of the model proposed by Staniloae consists in its flexibility and in the fact that it avoids and contradiction between the constitutive elements. It also leaves space for a creative tension between them. Thus, Scripture can challenge constantly the life of the Church and is a criterion of validity for tradition; Tradition provides the hermeneutical key to Scripture and helps the Church to be both identical with its nature and ever renewed in history; and finally, the Church protects Scripture from an arbitrary individualistic appropriation and offers tradition the institutional and sacramental context in which to be developed.

            The main problem in this model comes from the insistence of Fr. Staniloae on the preeminent role of the Church over Scripture and tradition,[25] manifested among other ways, through her infallibility. The result of this emphasis is that it disturbs the fine balance of Scripture and tradition in favor of the second, which leads, on one hand to a practical neglect of Scripture in the life of the Church, and on the other side, to a diminution of the authority of Scripture in validating or invalidating particular traditions.

            The perichoretic model of Dumitru Staniloae, for the relationship between Scripture, tradition and Church, with its qualities and weaknesses is a relevant example for the stage of the debate on this issue in contemporary Orthodoxy. Is there a way out, and ahead, of here? We believe there is, and the signs for it are already showing here and there.

    [1] Florovsky, p. 75.

    [2] Florovsky, p. 78.

    [3] Quoted in Florovsky, p. 81.

    [4] Florovsky, p. 82.

    [5] Florovsky, p. 81.

    [6] Florovsky, p. 82.

    [7] HEW Turner, The Pattern of Christian Truth, quoted in Florovsky, p. 82.

    [8] M Simonetti, Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church:An Historical Introduction to Patristic Exegesis, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994, p. 44.

    [9] Florovsky, p. 112.

    [10] While neo-Palamite Orthodox theologians like Lossky, Meyendorff, Ware and Staniloae are partisans of this thesis, Catholic and Protestant scholars like Jugie, Wendebourg, Williams and LaCugna oppose it.

    [11] CM LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life, San Francisco: Harper, 1991, p. 181.

    [12] `The ultimate purpose of St. Gregory's theological teaching was to defend the reality of Christian experience. Salvation is more than forgiveness. It is a genuine renewal of man. And this renewal is affected not by the discharge, or release of certain natural energies implied in man's own creaturely being, but by the "energies of God".'Florovsky, pp. 117-118.

    [13] `Hesychasm (hesychia = quietude) was a method of contemplation whose aim was to behold the glory of god, the uncreated divine light, that appeared to the disciples on Mt. Tabor at the Transfiguration of Christ.', LaCugna, p. 181-182.

    [14] D Staniloae, Viata si invatatura Sfintului Grigorie Palama [The Life and Teaching of St. Gragory Palamas], 2nd edition, Editura Scripta, Bucuresti, 1993, pp. 14-20.

    [15] Quoted in Florovsky, p. 114.

    [16] `The term theosis is indeed quite embarrassing if we would think in "ontological" categories. Indeed, man simply cannot "become" god. But the Fathers were thinking in "personal" terms and the mystery of personal communion was involved at this point. Theosis meant a personal encounter. It is that intimate intercourse of man with God, im which the whole of human existence is, as it were, permeated by the Divine Presence.' Florovsky, p. 115.

    [17] Energy is the expression of some nature, and according to St. Maximus the Confessor no nature can exist apart from its energies. See LaCugna, p. 183.

    [18] Florovsky, p. 114.

    [19] LaCugna, p. 187.

    [20] Florovsky, p. 113.

    [21] Introduction to Filocalia [Philokalia], vol. 3, Editura Harisma, Bucuresti, 1994.

    [22] `What The Vatican II Council has done pastorally and structurally for the Roman-Catholic Church, Fr. Staniloae has done for Orthodoxy in the area of theological reflection.' Ion Bria, Spatiul nemuririi [The Space of Immortality], Editura Trinitas, Iasi, 1994.

    [23] He writes on this issue: `Negative theology needs positive terms in order to negate them... Far from demanding a denial of the rational concepts, negative theology looks for enriching them'. D Staniloae, Spiritualitatea ortodoxa [Orthodox Spirituality], Editura IBM al BOR, Bucuresti, 1981, p. 204.

    [24] Staniloae, Teologia dogmatica, vol. 1, p. 66.

    [25] `... in this whole the Spirit gives the initiative more to the Church. She is moved by the Holy Spirit and her movement is made in and through Tradition and is refreshed through her connection with Scripture.' Staniloae, Teologia dogmatica, vol. 1, p. 66.